I don't usually take the advice of rightwingers. But I did this time. After receiving inflamed email messages from dozens of angry rightists that I should get the hell out of the USA and go to Venezuela, I accepted their challenge and flew to Caracas.
"Would you like me to start a fund to ship your ass down there, Comrade Cohen?"
What had provoked the often-abusive emailers was my 2005 Internet column urging U.S. residents to buy their gasoline at Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuela's state oil company. I called for a Citgo BUY-cott, to protest Bush's interventionist foreign policy while supporting innovative anti-poverty programs in Venezuela. (Last winter, Citgo started a program that provided discounted home-heating oil to low-income families in the U.S.)
"Hey moron, if you hate America so much and love Venezuela, why don't you go there?"
I'm glad I listened to the conservative chorus. In late June, I headed to Venezuela with a fact-finding delegation sponsored by the respected U.S. human rights group, Witness for Peace. The grueling trip covered much ground and all sides of Venezuela's social/political landscape. It is a complex country, headed by sometimes volatile President Hugo Chavez, a leftist and harsh Bush critic who was first elected in 1998.
As soon as I returned home, I headed to the nearest Citgo to fill up my tank -- more committed than ever to send a few dollars toward Venezuela's poor.
"You, sir, are as un-American as they come."
For decades, Venezuela's vast oil wealth had been squandered and hoarded by its light-skinned elite, while most Venezuelans -- largely of indigenous, African and mixed descent -- lived in dire poverty. Today, oil revenue from Citgo and elsewhere is funneled into social programs (called "missions") to benefit the country's poor majority. They're reminiscent of FDR's New Deal programs. . .born of our economic bust. But Venezuela's missions are fueled by a boom -- a boom in oil prices that is likely to persist for years.
"Because of Chavez, communism is thriving in South America."
From what I could see, capitalism is thriving. Foreign oil interests continue to profit handsomely from Venezuelan petrol, but they now pay a fairer share of taxes and royalties. So do the 80 McDonald's restaurants in Venezuela, which were briefly shut down last year over alleged tax cheating.
Multinational companies and the old elite are doing fine in today's Venezuela. So well that some Venezuelan leftists denounce Chavez -- despite his talk of building "21st century socialism" -- as a tool of corporate imperialism.
Like other oil-exporting countries, Venezuela in the past allowed its domestic productive economy to atrophy. Besides oil, it produced little -- with food largely imported. Today, people in poor areas are organizing themselves into productive and agricultural co-ops, supported by low-interest government loans. We visited a federal bank that underwrites women-run businesses nationwide.
My guess is that if Chavez succeeds in Venezuela -- a big "if" in a country of endemic corruption, poverty and crime, in the backyard of the U.S. superpower -- its economic system will end up looking more like Sweden than Cuba.
What's not debatable is that the poor have found hope in the Chavez administration -- which is why he's perhaps the most popular president in our hemisphere. So popular that Chavez critics in the U.S. government and Venezuelan opposition concede that they won't be able to defeat him in December when he seeks reelection.
"The trouble with all you liberals is that you're anti-American and hate democracy."
Participation in democracy is booming in Venezuela under Chavez. That's partly due to polarization, but also because so many poor people feel empowered enough for the first time to get active in politics. A massive 2005 Latinobarometro poll conducted in 18 Latin American countries showed that Venezuelans are among the top in preference for democracy over all other forms of government, in satisfaction with how their democracy is functioning, and in belief that their country is "totally democratic."